Who Was Homer Plessy?

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Most school children learn about Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court case that upheld racial segregation laws of public facilities as long as those facilities were “equal” in quality.  The case was overturned (defacto) by Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and other decisions.  This is one of this historical facts that many first-year college history students seem to remember (along the fact that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin and Martin Luther King Jr. was a leader of the Civil Rights movement).

Over at The New York Times, Glenn Rifkin tells the story of Homer Plessy, the New Orleans “colored” shoemaker who sat in a whites-only car of a train and challenged Louisiana’s Separate Car Act.

Here is a taste:

When Homer Plessy boarded the East Louisiana Railway’s No. 8 train in New Orleans on June 7, 1892, he knew his journey to Covington, La., would be brief.

He also knew it could have historic implications.

Plessy was a racially-mixed shoemaker who had agreed to take part in an act of civil disobedience orchestrated by a New Orleans civil rights organization.

On that hot, sticky afternoon he walked into the Press Street Depot, purchased a first-class ticket and took a seat in the whites-only car.

He was seven-eighths white and could easily pass for a white man, but a conductor, who was also part of the scheme, stopped him and asked if he was “colored.” Plessy responded that he was.

“Then you will have to retire to the colored car,” the conductor ordered.

Plessy refused.

Before he knew it a private detective, with the help of several passengers, had dragged him off the train, put him in handcuffs and charged him with violating the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act, one of many new segregationist laws that were cropping up throughout the post-Reconstruction South.

For much of Plessy’s young life, New Orleans, with its large population of former slaves and so-called “free people of color,” had enjoyed at least a semblance of societal integration and equality. Black residents could attend the same schools as whites, marry anybody they chose and sit in any streetcar.

French-speaking, mixed-race Creoles — a significant percentage of the city’s population — had acquired education, achieved wealth and found a sense of freedom after the Civil War. But as the century drew to a close, white supremacy movements gained traction and pushed hard to quash any notion that people of color might ever attain equal status in white America.

The Separate Car Act spurred vigorous resistance in New Orleans. Plessy, himself an activist, volunteered to be a test case for the local civil rights group, Comite’des Citoyens (Citizens Committee), which hoped eventually to put Plessy’s case before the United States Supreme Court. The group posted his bail after his arrest.

When his case was heard in criminal court four months later, Judge John Howard Ferguson found Plessy guilty.

Read the rest here.